Horse Hooves, Photo by secarter, Pixabay
Photo by Secarter, Pixabay

Hurray tomorrow is Leap Day! And to celebrate we’re kicking up our heels and hooves with a brief look at the loveliest of leapers, the horse. From royal parades to fatal falls we’ll sample three bronzed statues that capture the might and majesty of the horse. We begin in ancient Rome…

Parading Pair:  Our first leapers are Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) and his noble steed. On display at the Musei Capitolini in Rome, this larger-than-life statue was crafted from gilded bronze to honor Rome’s victory over Germanic invaders. From the emperor’s curls to his horse’s prancing hooves, the artist’s attention to detail is breathtaking. The pair parade in tandem, raising a hand and hoof to their adoring public.

Marcus Aurelius (c176), Museo Capitolini, Photo by cjverb (2019)-1
Marcus Aurelius (c176), Museo Capitolini, Photo by cjverb (2019)

Intellectual, ethical, and duty-bound this “philosopher king” established a variety of social programs such as increasing military pay and assistance for the poor. Aurelius was a proponent of free speech and invested in arts and education. He is perhaps best known for his book, Meditations. Part diary, part philosophical musings this glimpse into the life of a Roman emperor was written by Aurelius while on campaign.

Marcus Aurelius (c176), Museo Capitolini, Photo by cjverb (2019)-2
Marcus Aurelius (c176), Museo Capitolini, Photo by cjverb (2019)

Of the 20+ equi magni (equestrian statues) created during the Roman Empire, only Marcus Aurelius’ has stood the test of time. Many bronzes were melted down by later generations. Historians believe this statue may have been saved from the melting pot because it was mistaken for Constantine the Great (c280-337 CE), who was responsible for converting Rome to Christianity. If you’d like to learn more about Aurelius’ life and stoic philosophy, click on this Marcus Aurelius Meditations animated clip, courtesy of Eudaimonia.

Fun Arty Fact: In 1539, Michelangelo was hired to refurbish this bronze of Marcus Aurelius and his horse. This statue had a huge impact on Renaissance art and the revival of the lost art of hollow-cast bronze sculpture.

Distracted Driver:  Our next leaper is Mary of Burgundy (c1844-1860) by Jean-Auguste Barr (1811-1896). Sitting atop her rearing horse, the Duchess of Burgundy (1457-1482) prepares for the hunt. She balances her falcon on one hand and grasps the reins in the other while her page jogs alongside, trying to tame the ruckus. This 15th-century version of distracted driving captures the moment before the duchess’ fatal fall. The hunt commences, the horse trips and the duchess is tossed from her saddle. The horse crashes down on top of her, breaks her neck and the duchess tragically dies several days later.

A wealthy heiress and the only child of powerful Duke Charles the Bold (1433-1477), Mary was courted by many suitors. After her father’s unexpected death in the Battle of Nancy, Mary quickly married Maximilian I (1459-1519) of the Habsburg Dynasty. France balked at the union since her dowry came with not only cash but much sought after lands. The couple had two children, Philip the Handsome (1478-1506) and Margaret of Austria (1480-1530). You can find this beautiful bronze statuette of Mary at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). If you’d like to learn more about her life, click on this Mary of Burgundy link, courtesy of History of Royal Women.

Calm Counterpoint:  Our final leaper is Tarkio (2011) by Deborah Butterfield (b1949) and on display at the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA). Forged from bronze and fashioned to look like reclaimed wood, this gentle, skeletal mare cranes her head toward us. Is she inquisitive? Leaning in for a nuzzle? Or begging for a treat? You decide!

Butterfield features only mares in her work, stating they are a calm, peaceful counterpoint to the wild stallions often depicted in equestrian art. She credits her lifelong fascination with the 75th run of the Kentucky Derby and her birth coinciding on the same day. Butterfield’s earlier work was crafted from found objects such as recycled metal, wood, and straw. Her transition to bronze has produced pieces that are more durable, lasting and like Tariko, can be displayed outside. Click on this Deborah Butterfield link, courtesy of ArtNet to view more of her work. If you’d like to watch Tariko’s installation in the FIA’s sculpture garden, click on this Deborah Butterfield Tariko clip, courtesy of the FIA.

That concludes our look at equine art. I’ll be back next week with more Museum Bites. Until then have a great week!

Leap, Photo by StockSnap, Pixabay-100px Cover photo by StockSnap, courtesy of Pixabay.


Ancient History Encyclopedia: Marcus Aurelius

Art Institute of Chicago (AIC)

Art Institute of Chicago: Mary of Burgundy

ArtNet: Deborah Butterfield

Britannica: Deborah Butterfield

Britannica: Marcus Aurelius

Britannica: Mary of Burgundy

Eudaimonia: Marcus Aurelius Meditations (Animated)

Flint Institute of Arts (FIA)

Flint Institute of Arts (FIA): Tariko

Flint Institute of Arts: Installation of Tariko

Habsburger.net: Mary of Burgundy & Maximilian I

History of Royal Women: Mary of Burgundy

Khan Academy: Marcus Aurelius Equestrian Sculpture

Musei Capitolini

Musei Capitolini: Marcus Aurelius Equestrian Sculpture


Smithsonian American Art Museum: Deborah Butterfield Interview

Wikimedia Commons



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